Will the Pax Americana be More Sustainable Than the Dot.com Bubble?

Both the critics and the supporters of neoliberal globalization had, in the years before September 11, 2001, assumed that neoliberal globalization had made obsolete the nationalist militarism and imperialism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is a powerful geopolitical basis for such an assumption. Traditional empires expanded in two-dimensional space, along the surface of land and sea. The further away the imperial possession or interest, the more difficult was communication and transportation. Accordingly, capitalist imperialism too was tied to nationalism, and powerful corporations looked to their governments for support — tariffs and if necessary armies — against all comers.

Neoliberal globalization has been based on the technological revolutions of the last half century. Air transport and telecommunications have added a third dimension to geopolitical and entrepreneurial space: the rapid transportation of goods and persons, and the instantaneous transmission of information through the earth’s atmosphere. Using this third dimension, multinational corporations prowl the surface of the earth for cheap labor to reduce the costs of production, for willing partners (or unwilling corporate victims) on other continents, and for lucrative international currency deals that escape the attention of national regulators. The nation-state, together with war and imperialism, had, we thought until 2001, become obsolete.

But neoconservative ideology, having guided the military prowess of the world’s only remaining superpower into the conquest of Iraq, argues openly for a new American empire, a Pax Americana mandated by U.S. military preeminence, justified by the democratic values of American civilization, and based on neoliberal principles of market economy, deregulation and privatisation.

How did we get here? Is neoconservatism an atavism or is it, by some defiance of what we thought to be logical, the real face of neoliberal capitalism? And what is the significance for America’s imperial pretension of the reemergence of quasi-religious patriotic conviction after September 11? A brief look at the last century will illuminate these questions.

One of the most powerful forces underlying the awful history of the past hundred and fifty years has been the paradoxical but lethal dialectic between economic modernization and xenophobic nationalism. A brief look at this dialectic in European history will illuminate the antecedents of the current neoconservative cry for a global Pax Americana to save the world from terrorism and rogue states.

The turn to extreme nationalism in Europe — and particularly in Germany and France — at the end of the nineteenth century was mediated in both cases by the impact on traditional societies of capitalist modernization. As indicated, the latter, begun under the flag of free trade, shifted to the quest for protected Empires (and protected industrial sectors) in the course of the depression of the 1870’s. The economic motives for this turn were supplemented by the growing power of right-wing populist, xenophobic parties in which the democratic nationalism of earlier generations metamorphosed into militarist chauvinism. Such parties, often inpired by a conservative Christian antisemitism and antimodernism, offered artisans and peasants, torn from the traditional social fabric of village life and hurled into insecure urban jobs by the spread of industrial capitalism, a new sense of identity — identity with a militarized concept of the “nation” and with the imperial state that claimed to incarnate it.

Where the tradition of national democratic revolution was weak, as in Germany, the antisemitic “völkisch” parties were so effective in attracting the electorate of the older conservative and liberal parties that, to compete with the populist upstarts, those older parties largely took over the right-populist combination of antisemitism, cultural conservatism and xenophobia in the decades before World War I. Where the democratic revolutionary tradition was stronger, as in France, the threat to Republican institutions from the populist Right may have been powerful during the Dreyfus Affair, when it was supported both by the military establishment and by reactionary Catholicism, but it was repulsed around the turn to the twentieth century by a strong anti-clerical, anti-militarist backlash from radical republican and socialist parties inspired by the ideals of 1789. Another source of the relative weakness of the populist-nationalist reaction in France was the more gradual – compared with Germany – transition to the industrial age. The French peasantry, which had become firmly entrenched at the time of the Revolution, slowed the growth of capitalist industry, as did the relative scarcity of good coal deposits.

Nonetheless, the imperialist turn of the eighteen-eighties and the power of populist nationalism nurtured in both France and Germany a foreign policy based on dangerous alliances with atavistic imperial states — respectively Russian and Austria-Hungary — whose support for mutually hostile Slavic nationalisms ultimately, in 1914, dragged all the great powers into a conflict which lasted until 1945. With a twenty year intermission for a brief recovery, a disastrous economic crisis and the fascist takeovers in Italy, Germany and Spain, this conflict ended up costing the European peoples tens of millions of dead and hundreds of millions of shattered lives.

At the end of those decades of carnage and despair, every major force in Europe and North America, from capitalist conservatives to Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Communists, agreed to create institutions that would block any new drift toward nationalist confrontation: the United Nations, European Unification, and international, multilateral trade agreements. These institutions worked effectively for a quarter of a century and on paper for another twenty-five years. Since the Nixon regime’s trashing of the Bretton Woods currency stabilization agreement in the early seventies they have been undermined by the increasingly unilateral tendencies of the United States.(Will Hutton, The World We’re In, 2002) They are now being deconstructed by the openly imperial claims of the United States.

The miscalculations of various power elites in the early twentieth century are instructive. Trigger for the first phase of the apocalypse — Armageddon had a few years earlier been threatened by conflicting great power claims in North Africa — were the unstable nationalisms of the Balkans, in which a crumbling Ottoman Empire had ceded control to Russian and Austrian areas of influence: The Russians were allied with Serbia, the Austrians had long occupied Croatia. After the Austrians annexed Bosnia in 1909 — a pre-emptive move designed, they thought, to prevent terrorism — the Serbian secret police helped establish the tiny terrorist organization, the Black Hand, which, purportedly to castrate the war party in Austria, carried out the murder of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914. Far from intimidating the Austrians, the assassination enraged the Austrian war party and gave them the public support to issue an ultimatum to Serbia with a forty-eight hour deadline, demanding that the investigation of the murder would be carried out by Austrian agencies in Serbia. Serbia’s refusal led to an Austrian declaration of war. Since Serbia was allied to Russia, czarist forces were immediately mobilized against Austria-Hungary. Wilhelmian Germany, which had a similar alliance with Austria was required to enter the war with Russia, and, since the French-Russian alliance was common knowledge, with France as well. England’s alliance with France and Russia brought it too into the conflict.

The Wilhelmian government was delighted to support Austria against this burgeoning list of enemies, since it had long been perfecting a strategy for a two-front war that would enable it to smash both its Slavic and Gallic enemies in a short period of time — the Schlieffen plan. In fact, all the participating armies were initially supported by immense popular enthusiasm, egged on by various patriotic, nationalist or “völkisch” journalists and intellectuals who saw in a quick, successful war the heroic antidote to generations of stultifying domination by bourgeois and late-aristocratic elites. The fifty month bloodbath that followed, accompanied at its close by the disintegration of the Russian, German and Austrian Empires, is well known. As are the results of its repetition between 1939 and 1945.

The salient features of this horror were three-fold.
First, the dialectic between the capitalist modernization of the age and an essentially archaic and no-exit nationalist imperialism, mediated by the social problems caused by rapid industrialization.
Secondly, the way main stream political and economic forces become captive to the violent extremisms they had supported as, precisely, a popular alternative to social reform or revolution.
Finally, the usefulness of acts of terrorism to stimulate popular support for aggression.

Let’s return now to the present, where, unless U.S. neoconservatism is effectively blocked, all the elements of the early twentieth century apocalypse, magnified by the danger of nuclear war, threaten to reemerge.



In the flood of recent material explicating the rise of neoconservative ideology and the basis for a U.S. unilateral foreign policy, two works are particularly illuminating: Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power. America and Europe in the New World Order, (2003) and Will Hutton’s The World We’re In (2002). Kagan offers a robust political defense of neoconservativism, Hutton a trenchant economic critique of its significance for American capitalism.

Kagan’s book on the U.S. and European “takes” on world politics would have been more appropriately title “Of Weakness and Power”, since the European “paradise” he juxtaposes to the American power realism is a transparent euphemism for weakness. In a Hobbesian vein that many of the neoconservatives have taken over from Leo Strauss, Kagan argues that only military might really counts in international relations. Europeans, in their pleas for multilateral agreements and their aversion to violence, are possessed, in this view, by the slave mentality Nietzsche attributed to Christian pacifism in its efforts, inspired by nothing more or less than the slave’s weakness, to castrate the virtuous power of the aristocracy. Kagan does not openly cite Nietzsche, but his argumentation strongly suggests the “philosopher of the hammer.” (In fact, he uses the hammer in a striking metaphor comparing European and American attitudes to world problems.)

Sustaining Kagan’s Hobbesian view of the international scene is the assumption of unceasing threat. The jungle of imperialist power politics preceding World War I was, in this view, followed by the global menace of international fascism, particularly the design for world conquest of Nazi Germany. After World War II, the focus of perceived threat shifted eastward to the Soviet Union, whose expansion to eastern Europe was widely seen as the harbinger of a Communist takeover of the rest of the continent. After the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the threat shifted to the southeast, to the fanatic world of middle eastern moslem fundamentalism, and, most recently, to the Iraqi rogue state, with its horribly dangerous weapons of mass destruction and its alleged ties to Osama Bin Laden.

Unlike post-1945 Europe, which exchanged the Hobbesian perspective for a Kantian one of universal peace, the United States, in this view, has been on the whole a responsible defender of liberal civilized values in a dangerous world. Kagan’s explicit reference point is the lonely sheriff in the lawless mid-western town of movie legend, able and willing to defend the cowardly townspeople (the Europeans, typified by the saloonkeeper who can only think of buying off the badmen) against the threats of amoral gangsters on horseback. Europeans, in their “postmodern” paradise protected by U.S. power, have been able to devote themselves to economic and cultural development. They could allow themselves to spend only a fraction of what the U.S. does on defense, because they were protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This depiction of a Europe able to ignore the profound threats to its existence because of U.S. “realism” applies, in Kagan’s analysis, both to the menace of a Soviet takeover during the Cold War, and to the subsequent threats from Islamic terrorism and Saddam’s WMD. Kagan views any European skepticism about the reality of these threats as wishful thinking, explicable in terms of Europe’s unwillingness to confront renewed global conflict but nonetheless delusional.

Neoconservatism refuted by historical reality

The last of the menaces alleged by Kagan can be taken as pars pro toto for the rest. The Pentagon’s assurances that, according to unimpeachable intelligence reports, the Ba’athist regime, in contravention of its pledged commitment, still possessed and was itching to use enormous amounts of nerve and mustard gas, motivated a U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq to “disarm” perfidious Saddam. Since then, thousands of searchers have been unable to locate the slightest trace of those diabolical instruments. It turns out that most of the intelligence consisted of rumors, gossip and forgeries forwarded by the U.S.-protected Iraqi exile organization of the convicted embezzler Chalabi (himself privy to the neocon inner circle) to the “Cabal”, the secretive twelve man intelligence unit (Office of Special Plans) established in the Pentagon by Donald Rumsfeld as a counterweight to the C.I.A.

The alleged threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe between 1945 and 1989, most historians and political scientists now agree, was as chimerical as Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction have turned out to be in 2003. Archival research has confirmed the reasoning of many Cold War skeptics: the Soviet Union’s posture after the Second World War was essentially defensive. By its occupation of eastern Germany, the Soviets were not planning global conquest but simply maintaining the disunity of a Germany that had twice in very recent history invaded and devastated European Russia.

Moreover, Soviet domination of the European states that had earlier been part of either the Austro-Hungarian or the Czarist Empires was largely a conservative return to the pre-1914 status quo. After the crushing of German military power, the Soviet military and political presence in Eastern Europe had the double function of exploiting the raw materials of the region for post-war Soviet industrial development, and of keeping under tight control the latent nationalisms of the area, first and foremost the German variety, but also to an important degree those of the quarreling and unstable states between the Slavic heartland and German-speaking Europe.

Notwithstanding the internationalist rhetoric of Soviet Communism, however, the foreign policy of Russia under Stalin and his successors was founded on the realistic perception that any effort to take over, by invasion or subversion, the much more developed industrial societies of western Europe would inevitably shift westward the balance of political and economic power in the Communist world and create the danger of contamination of the Slavic heartland by liberal and socialist values. No more than Czarist Russia after the defeat of Napoleon could Stalinist Communism realistically envisage administering an empire that extended from the Sea of Japan to the Bay of Biscay.

There remains of course, the reality of September 11, the galvanizing shock that permitted U.S. neocons to sell their world view to a traumatized U.S. public opinion. While most of the world, including the vast majority of Europeans, were horrified by this event, many Europeans were aware, as most Americans were not, that the attacks on New York and Washington were not intended to bring the U.S. to its knees but to express the outrage of fundamentalist Moslem fanatics at the profanation of Islamic holy places, particularly in Saudi Arabia, by the American military presence in the Middle East. In fact, most European observers as well as a good many American ones argue that the heavy-handed military riposte to the terror attacks of 2001 — like the Austrian occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1909, also undertaken in the name of combatting terrorism — has increased rather than decreased the possibility of their repetition.

To justify its military response to all three situations, U.S. power has alleged the need to prevent or pre-empt an imminent and devastating attack. For Kagan, as for most other conservatives, the crucial never-to-be-repeated event, elevated to the force of transhistorical legend, was the pusillanimity of liberal democracies regarding the rise of Hitler: “The ‘lesson of Munich’ came to dominate American strategic thought….today it remains the dominant paradigm. While a small segment of the American elite still yearns for ‘global governance’and eschews military force, Americans from Madeleine Albright to Donald Rumsfeld, from Brent Scowcroft to Anthony Lake, still remember Munich, figuratively if not literally.” Yet in all three post-war situations, Europeans, who have far more reason than Americans to fear attack and who have had a much closer experience of both mass Communist Parties and Islamic (and non-Islamic) terrorism, have rarely made the comparison with Munich and not shared the intense U.S. feeling of insecurity. Kagan argues that this is because they are too afraid to look reality in the face, just as they were when they were “appeasing” Hitler. But the systematic errors of American assessments of global menaces to the western social order suggests another possibility: that Europeans are realistic in their assessments and Americans are pathologically fearful of foreign menaces.

Social anxieties, fear of terrorism and the new imperialism

Indeed, Americans live in a society riven by such extremes of wealth and poverty that social fear — based on urban muggings and robberies, on downsizing, on the many cases of middle class decline into the unprotected lower orders, on becoming seriously ill without the necessary health insurance, etc., etc. — is pervasive, from the wealthy residents of gated communities to the meanest inhabitants of urban ghettos. After decades of media exploitation of this anxiety through cataclysmic scenarios of alien invasions, sinister criminal gangs, diabolic intervention in human affairs, South American drug barons, and fascist and communist totalitarian menaces, it is hardly surprising that Americans should rally around flag and president when their fears become focussed on a gang of fanatic Islamic fundamentalists whose behavior might have come from a 007 film.

Looking at the insecure mass of Americans threatened on a daily basis with criminal aggression and social decline, often forced out of the decently paid jobs that prevailed several decades ago into a life of parttime “flex” work, one is reminded of the patriotism of the deracinated Roman mob, forced out of the social nexus by the slaves brought back to Rome with the victorious legions in a way comparable to today’s elimination of regular work by automation and job export. Another point of comparison is with the right-populist masses, recruited from traditional middle classes threatened by industrial capitalism, that supported xenophobic ideologues and nationalist imperialism in pre-World War I Europe, and fascist totalitarianism during the interbellum.

If, however, European capitalist elites before World Wars I and II viewed alliances with such right-wing popular forces as both a support for their imperialist aims and a fine way of neutralizing the socialist opposition, they became aware in 1945 that such opportunism led to a dead end of mutual annihilation, and they have ever since quarantined the far right politically and socially. Imperialist rivalries also were interred after the demise of fascism, partly because of the post-war surge of Third World anticolonialism and partly because of the turn, after the devastation of European cities and populations, to principles of European political and economic cooperation. If the threat from the left, seemingly supported by a resurgent Soviet Union, was stronger than ever in the late 1940s, the response was not the earlier combination of support for populist chauvinism and social legislation, but the creation of a full-fledged welfare state, inspired broadly by a Keynesian perspective on the need for state regulation of market capitalism and for amelioration of the social problems it produced. This welfare state coincided with the reconstruction of a Europe based economically on the proliferation of Fordist methods of mass production: burgeoning numbers of Europeans worked in centralized factories and offices.

North American economic elites, during and after a 1950’s phase of paranoid nationalism sparked by the Soviet nuclear bomb and the Korean War, similarly supported welfare state protections, extended Fordist production of consumer goods, and implemented Keynesian principles in international financial relations through the Bretton Woods monetary accord.

Hutton on the assumptions underlying social ideology in the U.S. and Europe

Will Hutton, in his brilliant juxtaposition of European and American capitalism, The World We’re In, explains how in the early ‘seventies the Nixon presidency started a movement away from this Keynesian multilateralism by jettisoning Bretton Woods. Thatcherism in England parallelled Reaganism in the U.S. in exchanging the welfare state for the panaceas of privatisation, deregulation, and pure market capitalism. From this point on, Hutton argues, the latent unilateralism of American foreign policy, pendant of the anti-social individualism of American capitalism, was coming to the fore, inhibited only by the “Vietnam syndrome” that September 11 did so much to dissipate. Underlying the U.S. and Thatcherian versions of market capitalism, however, was a fundamental characteristic of Anglosaxon capitalist development: the harshly individualist premises exemplified in the philosophy of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.

Europeans, to the contrary, have, in their diverse mentalities and ideologies, generally stressed the social basis of human existence, exemplified in the sociological theory of Emile Durkheim. This social presupposition has very old roots in Christian doctrines of responsibility for the poor and in feudal notions of responsibility for one’s dependents. In the modern era, the plurality of nations and of social forces within nations has mandated interstate cooperation and social compromise. Periods in which powerful states have thrown these principles to the winds have been the darkest and bloodiest in European history. In consequence, the European Keynesian welfare state was more solidly anchored than the American variety in popular as well as elite mentalities, and conservative efforts to convert continental Europe to a privatised market economy based on U.S. principles of pure individualism have encountered vast popular resistance.

Hutton denies the Anglosaxon argument that government or social controls over market economies limit wealth creation and productive growth and that their absence makes a completely deregulated, privatised capitalism the most progressive economic force on earth. He underlines the long-term competitive disadvantages of U.S. shareholder capitalism based on such principles compared with a European capitalism subject to the interplay of banking, state and social controls. In a number of striking examples, Hutton points to the undermining of powerful corporations like Boeing, Enron and General Electric by the dependence of corporate finances on fickle shareholder favor. To boost share prices on a day-to-day or at most week-to-week basis, corporations are in continual search of flashy but expensive merger operations, or downsizing gimmicks or a new way of cooking the books to show more profit. Since the downsizing often goes at the expense of research and development programs, which may only be profitable years later, technological and productivity improvements tend to lag behind those of European corporations in the same areas, whose financing is more dependent on the judgment of lending banks as to their long term viability. An additional consequence of dependence on shareholder value is the bubble effect of incredible overvaluations, as in the telecoms industry, where the bursting of the bubble led to the U.S. recession of 2001.

Hutton’s book of 2003 seems, like the neoconservative ideology he detests, to view the unilateralist military and economic policies of the Bush regime as an expression of the most deepseated impulses of the American social order. The question however which Hutton does not broach is whether the multilateral neoliberalism to which even conservative capitalists paid lip service before 9/11 may not have actually been the norm of the current era, to which the policies of the present administration and the neoconservative ideology that support them may be little more than an opportunist and temporary aberration, made possible by the national outburst of fear and patriotism after the WTC and Pentagon attacks.
Who benefits from the new imperialism?

The knock-them-down, build-them-up-policies that have since characterized U.S. military and reconstruction campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are of great benefit to two major sectors of the American economy, energy and defense, which happen to have supplied much of the campaign funding and many of the key figures for the present Republican adminstration. But in terms of the neoliberal globalization of the past two decades, the sudden release of capitalism from two-dimensional space limitations to its three-dimensional breakthrough, to its ability to buy cheap labor and materials everywhere on earth, characterized by the spread of computerized technology, social dumping on distant continents and the concomitant decline in labor costs for the manufacture of consumer goods — in all these terms, the energy and defense industries are economically archaic. They are dwarfed by the giant manufacturers of electrical appliances, cars, computer and telecom equipment and apparel and by the burgeoning service industries of consumer society, like the tourist industry.

Let’s look at this archaism of the defense and oil beneficiaries of Bush’s policies in another framework. Neoliberal capitalism signifies in social-economic terms the replacement of a Fordist by a post-Fordist production system, in which computerization permits the replacement of human labor by machines and, where this is not yet feasible or advantageous, the export of onerous work to branch factories or subcontractors in Asian or East European or South American cheap labor areas. Concomitantly, the driving forces of individual behavior, in the west at least, are no longer the work norms and identities of mass production Taylorism and the welfare state but the consumer norms inculcated by omnipresent advertising. In these terms, both the oil rigs and the defense plants fall largely out of the new conceptual framework of consumer society. Oil, it is true, is a vital commodity for running that coveted prize of the aspirant consumer, the automobile. But the car is precisely the characteristic symbol of Fordist production, and even the more enlightened oil and automotive companies, aware of the global pollution and warming problems the present administration denies, are investing considerable sums on research into alternative, non-pollutant, energy sources and motors.

Moreover, the production costs of oil are roughly the same in the Western Hemisphere as in the Middle East. Computerization does relatively little to eliminate a work force which was neither large to begin with (compare it to the 200 million on our planet whose livelihoods are dependent on the tourist industry, crippled by international hostilities) nor tied to an assembly line; in addition, unlike the other industries I have mentioned, the sales of U.S. oil companies are not much geared to the world market, but are more or less restricted to their captive clientele in North America. The defense industry is even more clearly than the oil industry economically archaic in both its production systems, which can hardly be exported to Chinese export production zones, and its guaranteed sales to a single consumer: the U.S. military.

In fact, the most bizarre and untenable aspect of the present ideological and military offensives of the Bush administration is this: whereas the ultimate justification for “civilizing” Iraq is its failure to understand the virtues of free market capitalism, the corrective force is a state-supported “defense” industry and the beneficiary is the oil industry, both of which only thrive by virtue of an interpenetration with the state apparatus unmatched since the symbiosis of party, government and economy in the Soviet Union.

It is of course possible that Hutton’s — and the neocons’ — perspective on the deep-rooted permanence of the new U.S. strategy is correct. In that case, only the formation of economically protected continental blocs in Europe and Asia will stand in the way of the subjection of the planet to a Pax Americana. Such protectionist blocs, each fending off the other’s capital and products, are, according to many astute analysts, quite likely in the coming decade. Whether a putative European bloc should also try to equal U.S. military might is doubtful. To double, as some advocates of a continental defense force argue, European military expenditures would necessitate further cuts in the already weakened European social protection system and significantly reduce popular support for the idea of Europe. To the contrary, as Hutton points out, the strength of Europe in any future contest with the United States lies not in its ability to make war but in its superior social cohesion and productivity.

It is also possible, however, that the conditioning of America’s aggressive unilateralism by the needs of the defense and oil industries is indeed an aberrant, reactionary phenomenon, given a temporary boost by two more or less accidental and non-systemic factors: the one-shot terrorist coup of September 11, and the political need of the Bush/Cheney administration, which is focussed on reelection in 2004, for popular military adventures to distract the public from a reactionary domestic agenda that is loathed by most Americans. In this case, as Immanuel Wallerstein has recently argued, the impulse to correct it will come from within the capitalist heartland itself, from the many U.S. corporate powers whose interests in cheap labor and unfettered market reach would be thwarted by such global protectionism.

In either case, Hutton’s point about the difference between the Anglosaxon and European models of market capitalism gives an initial space for the European opposition to an Americanized world and more broadly to the international movements for peace and global justice. The resistance of Europe to current American unilateralism, mirrored in a myriad of trade disputes with the United States, is crucial. If Europe is to live up to its social character, then Europeans, either within or against the European Union, must themselves restore the social protections which, under the influence of Americanized values of privatisation and deregulation, they have until now allowed to be eroded. Moreover, only a socialized European economy, one whose international trade policies could work toward reducing north/south inequalities, would be able to offer a humane alternative to U.S.-style globalization as a model for Asian, African and South American development. In other words: Social Europe must come in the place of neoliberalism as the model of the future.

ARTHUR MITZMAN is emeritus professor of modern history at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of The Iron Cage: An Historical Interpretation of Max Weber and Michelet, Historian: Rebirth and Romanticism in Nineteenth-Century France and, most recently, the excellent Prometheus Revisited: The Quest for Global Justice in the 21st Century. He can be reached at: mitzman@counterpunch.org